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Mercedes, Red Bull nip and tuck in title dual

With five races remaining of a coruscating 2021 Formula One season you can be assured it all may go down to the wire, with Max Verstappen eyeing a maiden World Driver's Championship and to deny Sir Lewis Hamilton an unprecedented eighth title.

It is neck-and-neck in the quest for both titles as Verstappen has an 8-point lead in the Driver’s Championship, whilst Mercedes hold a 23-point advantage on Red Bull Racing in the Constructor‘s Championship.

As the last segments of the 2021 season unfold there has been a recurring theme of overflowing drama and the three most recent GP weekends did not disappoint.

After a jaw-dropping Italian GP in September, Verstappen held a 5-point gap over Hamilton as the pair collided and subsequently both retired from the race at Monza.

Two weeks later the grid stopped over in Russia as Kimi Räikkönen returned after missing the Dutch and Italian Grands Prix through Covid-19. The soon-to-be retired 42-year-old received a warm reception from a joyous Finnish contingent at the Sochi Autodrom.

It was announced in June this year that the Russian GP will be moving from Sochi to St Petersburg in 2023, and the penultimate race weekend at the Sochi Autodrom will certainly live long in the memory.

Adverse weather conditions in Krasnodar saw the third and final practice session cancelled, before the rain cleared in time for qualifying.

McLaren continued their fine form on the back of their 1-2 finish at the Italian GP two weeks prior.

At Sochi, Lando Norris took a maiden pole position as he pipped Carlos Sainz Jr by more than half a second.

Aged 21 years and 316 days, Norris became the 5th-youngest pole sitter in F1 history behind the quartet of Sebastian Vettel (21y 72d), Charles Leclerc (21y 165d), Fernando Alonso (21y 236d), and Verstappen (21y 307d).

George Russell also maintained his recent form by qualifying P3 with future Mercedes teammate Hamilton beginning the Russian GP alongside his compatriot on the 2nd row. Following victory at Monza, Daniel Ricciardo qualified P5 in Sochi.

Verstappen, Leclerc and Valtteri Bottas all started from the back of the grid for respective power unit changes.

Sainz snatched the race lead from his former teammate on the opening lap before Norris put his McLaren back in front of the Ferrari on lap 13.

Norris was on course for his maiden F1 victory before the heavens opened with just a handful of laps remaining and the young McLaren driver went sliding off the track after hesitancy to switch to intermediates.

Hamilton had proactively changed tyres and the Mercedes duly passed a grip-stricken Norris on lap 51/53 to claim an unprecedented 100th F1 race win, and to take back the Championship lead from Verstappen by a slender 2 points.

There were a flurry of positional changes in the final laps as Verstappen and Sainz both took advantage of Norris' mishap and crept into the podium places, while Bottas came from nowhere to slip into the top 5.

Heartbreak for Norris who could only salvage a P7 finish, but he also set the fastest lap of the race. McLaren teammate Ricciardo ended P4, Alonso P6, and the returning Räikkönen scooped 4 points in P8, as Sergio Perez and Russell snatched the last remaining points places.

Russia GP results
The pendulum swung in the closing stages at Sochi

The Turkish GP was originally scheduled for 27 June, before it was cancelled and replaced by the Styrian GP at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. In late June, it was announced that the Turkish GP had rejoined the 2021 calendar to substitute for the Singaporean GP over the first weekend in October.

In August during the F1 summer break, it was declared that the Japanese GP scheduled for 8-10 October would not go ahead due to a resurgence in Covid-19 cases amidst the hosting of the 2020 Tokyo Games.

As a result the race at Istanbul Park was moved a week later than planned.

Turkey, itself, continues to battle Covid-19 and at the time of the race weekend the country had the 4th-most active cases globally. Nevertheless the GP weekend in Turkey hosted a daily attendance of 100,000 spectators.

Hamilton was fastest in all three qualifying sessions but the defending world champion took a 10-place grid penalty after changing the internal combustion engine in his Mercedes.

Sainz and Ricciardo both started at the back of the pack after Ferrari and McLaren changed multiple power unit components in their respective cars.

With Hamilton demoted to the middle of the starting grid, current Mercedes teammate Bottas inherited pole position at Istanbul Park. Verstappen qualified in P3 which subsequently promoted the Dutch title-hopeful to the front row at lights out on Sunday.

Leclerc started P3 with Gasly keeping him company on the 2nd row. Alonso started P5 to record his best starting position since 2014.

A damp track on race day meant the entire grid started on inters. Bottas had a fine start off the line to lead Verstappen and Leclerc, while Gasly and Alonso collided after turn 1 which sent the Alpine into a mild spin before the Spaniard knocked Mick Schumacher‘s Haas shortly after.

Schumacher, 22, had earned a career-best qualifying return of P14.

Alonso and Gasly each incurred 5-second time penalties for their incidents.

Bottas retained the lead for all but 9 laps as the Finn took his 1st win of 2021, 15 seconds clear of runner-up Verstappen who also regained the WDC lead from Hamilton to go six points clear.

Bottas set the fastest lap on the last of the 58-lap race.

Perez took P3 as Red Bull scored a double podium in their white car liveries – a tribute to their Japanese engine supplier Honda over what was supposed to be the Japan GP weekend.

Leclerc and Hamilton both left their pit stops very late which saw them end in P4 & P5, respectively.

Gasly finished in P6 and was trailed by Norris and Sainz, while Lance Stroll and Esteban Ocon rounded the top 10.

There were zero DNFs during the race in Turkey, for only the 3rd time in 2021.

Turkey GP results

From Turkey to the United States next as the F1 paddock landed in Austin, Texas at the Circuit of the Americas which experienced blazing hot conditions all weekend long.

Verstappen took pole position for a 9th time in 2021 (and 12th overall), two-tenths faster than Hamilton.

Perez qualified P3 ahead of Bottas, Leclerc, Sainz, Ricciardo and Norris.

Bottas incurred a 5-place grid penalty for deploying a 6th internal combustion engine this year.

Alonso, Russell and Vettel also received grid penalties for changing multiple power unit components, which resulted in the trio starting at the back of the grid in Texas.

Hamilton got off the line better than pole sitter Verstappen and it was the Mercedes who led the pack after the opening lap. The entirety of the top 10 – bar Sainz – started the race on medium tyres and the scorching heat saw Verstappen and Hamilton each swap for the hard compound after just 13 laps.

Verstappen was in the lead again after he and Hamilton completed their 2nd pit stops, and the title challenger was going at it hammer and tongs with the defending world champion within striking distance with just a handful of laps remaining.

Verstappen managed to fend off Hamilton and crossed the finish line a mere one-second ahead of the charging Mercedes of Hamilton's. Perez came in P3 to gift Red Bull a 2nd double-podium in as many races and their 3rd in 2021.

Leclerc returned a P4 finish ahead of Ricciardo, while Bottas edged Sainz to P6.

Norris could only rescue P8 as Yuki Tsunoda and Vettel closed out the points.

Hamilton set the fastest lap of the race as a combined 400,000 spectators embraced the US Grand Prix weekend.

US GP results

Verstappen now has an 8-point buffer over Hamilton and with just five races remaining of an enthralling F1 season, it seems all but certain that both Championships will go down to the wire as Mercedes and Red Bull battle to bask in glory come 12 December in Abu Dhabi.

Remaining races in F1 2021:

7 November - Mexico GP

14 November - Brazil GP

21 November - Qatar GP

5 December - Saudi Arabia GP

12 December - Abu Dhabi GP

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